Claudette Johnson: ‘Presence’
It’s rare that the title of an exhibition carries as much weight as this. But with her show of paintings of Black figures, Claudette Johnson is giving space to features, bodies and figures that have historically existed only on the margins of art. Here, at the Courtauld, surrounded by Renoirs and Manets and Cezannes, Blackness is present. She set her stall out early on in her career, coming to relative prominence as part of the BLK Art Group alongside Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers, announcing herself with paintings of Black people (both real and imaginary) that are far too big for the paper they’re painted on. They burst out at the top and sides of the picture plane, their presence too large to contain. The earliest works here, from her student days in the early 80s, are both soft and defiant. The figures hold relaxed poses in fuzzy fabrics, but their faces are nothing but full-frontal confrontation: lips set, eyes hard, daring you to say they don’t belong in a gallery context. They’re not brilliant paintings, but they make their point brilliantly. They make their point brilliantly By 1990, her approach changes and matures. The figures are still too big for their paper, but now the dark pastels are dappled, smudged, more minimal and spare, there’s more blankness, more attention to the texture of skin. Her more recent work is by far her best, full of space and pictorial cleverness, neatly composed with figures set against big planes of blue or yellow or vast fields of white.